What can an art residency in a Utrecht old folks' home teach us about intergenerational living?

Caroline Derveaux-Berté's workshop at The Sofia. Image: Jade French.

The city of Utrecht might be compact but it’s a bustling centre of student life, cycling obsessives and innovative social design. With social care in the UK in something of a crisis, perhaps this small Dutch city can offer an alternative view on how young and old can reconnect and provide each other with a better quality of life.

Earlier this year, student accommodation in the city centre reached a saturation point, with a growing number of students and early careerists finding it hard to rent in the city. So, it came as a surprise when The Sofia, an elderly care home, stepped in with a solution. It owners began to offer space in its empty spare wing out as student accommodation. The only catch? The new residents had to integrate with the elderly folk who already lived there.

Around the same time, artists and NGO workers Linda Rosink and Barbara van Beers were looking for office space for their project, Artshake. They approached The Sofia and immediately realised that they could make a difference by setting up an artist residency that would organise activities and help people meet one another.

It might sound simple, but art can be intimidating. The first residency, with Italian artist Mattias Campo Dall'Orto was an experiment. Luckily, his mix of photo-realistic portraits and a huge mural painted on the side of the building helped ease up those people who felt they were “not arty”. He also paved the way for some more abstract work from French artist Caroline Derveaux-Berté.

This distinctly European flavour is a deliberate choice. The artists can’t speak Dutch and communicating with the elderly residents about upcoming events and art projects can prove tricky. However, this communication gap also gently forces the students to help with translation and spreading information. In this simple way, the elderly and young people begin to speak on common ground.

By inserting the artist as an uncertain element between the two generations, Artshake provides a talking point for the residents, asking them to get excited – or even critical – about the art together. Beyond this, the building is becoming a social hub for the neighbourhood in general. During my stay, I saw a full-blown orchestra rehearsing with the residents, and Barbara and Linda are keen to implement more art workshops, yoga, and choirs into the space.

At the most recent art residency, Caroline Derveaux-Berté's work on childhood memories was channeled through abstract stories. On one morning, we spent time with 66-year-old Marianne, painting walls and listening to disco. Once we had finished a couple of panels, we ripped the masking tape off – an act which really felt like a collaborative effort. Marianne took us to see the portrait Mattias had drawn of her on the previous residency, explaining how she found the artist's intriguing. “It’s like we’re creating new memories as well,” says Caroline, “Sometimes you can look at the past and become sad, but actually by creating beautiful moments, in the present, you realise life doesn’t just finish at 66.”

The Sofia doesn’t feel like a typical care home. There’s an on-site hairdresser, a games room and coffee on tap by the receptionist. People are encouraged to loiter and chat. There’s a restaurant that wouldn’t look too out of place on Shoreditch High Street, with mason jar light bulbs and new geometric signs all around the buildings. With a fresh take on the care home, Artshake brings a sense of youth into the building showing how older generations can be exposed to new trends.

Now it feels like a home for everyone – but it might not have always been this way. During a transitional period over the summer, the first artist left and Linda noticed that “all the rules were gone. Some of the elderly people took advantage – sitting outside in front of the restaurant and having parties until 2am. Then you had the young people trying to sleep!” In fact, for Caroline the “older people are the young ones – always teaching me Dutch swearwords, drinking and talking through movies. The elderly seem to be getting a rebellious streak back.”

This inter-generational behaviour “swap” suggests that the social impact of a project like this isn’t always easy to measure empirically. When we tried to encourage some elderly people to help us paint, some had excuses: lunch to go to, family to see, dogs to walk. Even though that meant we were left holding our rollers, the power of choice can’t be underestimated. A lot of the original, elderly residents often felt like choices were being made for them; now, Linda notes that the power of saying ‘no I’m busy’ will “empower the elderly people, and show the younger students what it is like. Someday, we will be old. We have to ask: how would we like to live and be treated?”

 As Caroline put it: “It’s about owning the walls. They are the simplest part of where you live but they can also keep you separate.” By breaking down the generational barriers, Artshake has proven that even the smallest element of choice can have a big impact on daily life. By inserting something new, engaging and interesting into elderly care we can begin to close the gaps between the generations.

Just seeing the interaction between different generations is enough for Linda: “As long as we see young and old talking to each other in the restaurant or saying ‘hi’ in the corridors, that’s all we want. It’s very simple.”


All pictures courtesy of the author.

 
 
 
 

The Réseau Express Métropolitain: the multi-billion dollar light rail project Montreal never asked for

Montreal from the summit of Mont Royal. Image: Getty.

The Réseau Express Métropolitain (REM) is the 67-kilometre, C$6.3bn light rail project Montreal never asked for.

It is the single largest transit project in Montreal in half a century. Not since the construction of the Métro has there been as bold a proposal: an entirely new mass-transit system that would have the effect of radically altering the city’s urban landscape.

Conceived, planned and costed by the Province of Quebec’s institutional investor, the Caisse de dépot et placement du Québec (CDPQ), the REM is currently under construction and slated to become operational between 2021 and 2023.

Once completed, it is supposed to provide high-frequency, intermediate-volume light-rail service on a regional level: connecting suburbs with the city centre along three axes and linking Montreal’s central business district with its international airport.

The REM may even connect to an as-yet unbuilt baseball stadium, and politicians have even proposed extending it over hundreds of kilometres to provide inter-city service. Indeed, the REM has been strongly endorsed – by both the federal and provincial governments that back it – as a panacea for all of Greater Montreal’s transit and traffic congestion problems.

Since it was first proposed in 2015, the REM has been championed above all else as a guaranteed-to-succeed “public-public partnership”. A win-win, where various levels of government cooperate and coordinate with an arm’s-length government agency to produce much-needed new transit and transport infrastructure.

Unlike the more commonly known public-private partnership (of which there are some notable recent failures in Quebec), the obvious insinuation is that – this time – there’s no private interest or profit to worry about.

PR aside, the pension funds managed by the CDPQ are private, not public, wealth. The CDPQ’s entire raison d’etre is to profit. It has even gone to the lengths of “mandating” the REM to provide it an annual profit of about 10 per cent, a cost to be assumed by the governments of Quebec and Canada in the event the REM isn’t profitable.

The law that has made the REM possible has other interesting components. The REM is legally distinct from and superior to other public transit agencies and the extant regional planning authority. It has exclusive access to publicly-funded transit infrastructure. There’s even a “non-compete” clause with the city’s existing mass transit services, as well as special surtax on all properties within a 1km radius of each of the 26 proposed stations.

This latter element takes on a new dimension when you consider the CDPQ’s real-estate arm, Ivanhoé-Cambridge, has a near total monopoly on the properties surrounding the future downtown nexus of the REM, and is invested in suburban shopping centres that will soon host REM stations.

It seems that Montreal isn't so much getting a new mass transit system as a pension fund is using a new transport system to stimulate growth in a faltering if not moribund commercial and residential property sector.

Quebec’s public pensions have historically invested in suburban sprawl. As this market becomes increasingly untenable, and populations shift back towards the city centre, the REM is supposed to stimulate growth in “transit-oriented developments” centred on its future stations. The new surtaxes are likely intended to force sales of land for immediate redevelopment, so that new homes are ready to move into as soon as the system becomes operational.

It’s important here to remember that the city of Montreal wasn’t given several billion dollars by the government with which to spend developing its mass transit system. Rather, Quebec’s former premier asked the CDPQ to come up with a way to integrate several long-standing yet unrealized transit proposals. These included a light-rail system over Montreal’s new Champlain Bridge, an express train to Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, and a dedicated commuter rail line for the Western suburbs. It was the CDPQ that proposed a fully-automated light-rail system that would use existing technology as well as some of Montreal’s extant railway infrastructure as an inexpensive way of uniting several different projects into an assumedly more efficient one.

So far so good. Cities need more mass transit, especially in the era of climate change, and Montreal contends with regular congestion both on its roadways and various mass transit systems. Moreover, access to the city’s already generally-high quality public transit systems is an important driver of property values and new residential development.

Considering the evident need for more transit, the REM theoretically provides an opportunity to kill several birds with one stone. Better still, the REM will in all likelihood stimulate the transit-oriented developments and re-urbanisation necessary for a more sustainable future city.

A map of the proposed network, with metro lines in colour and commuter rail in grey. Click to expand. Image: Calvin411/Wikimedia Commons.

The REM is the business “test case” on which two new government entities are based; the CDPQ’s infrastructure development arm, and the Canadian government’s infrastructure development bank.

The REM is also intended to stimulate economic activity in important economic sectors – such as engineering, construction and technology – that could soon be in high-demand internationally. Both the governments of Quebec and Canada see tremendous value in the economic potential of infrastructure mega projects at home and abroad.

This aside, the actual development of the REM has been complicated by what appears to be a bad case of over-promising and under-delivering, at least in terms of how seamlessly it could be integrated into the city’s extant transit and transport systems.

Though the train as originally conceived was intended to use an existing electrified railway line as the backbone of the network, it now appears that the REM cannot in fact be adapted to the line’s current voltage. The entire line, and the tunnel it passes through, requires a thorough overhaul, something that had last been completed in the mid-1990s. The new electrification, as well as the reconstruction of the tunnel, will cut it off from the regional commuter rail network. Rather than have different types of rail systems share existing infrastructure, the REM will force the premature (and unnecessary) retirement of a fleet of high-volume electric trains.

Consider that while the REM will connect the city with its international airport, it’s not planned to go just one kilometre farther to connect the airport with a major multi-modal transit station. Dorval Station integrates a sizeable suburban bus terminus with a train station that serves both regional commuter rail as well as the national railways network.

It’s difficult to understand how and why such an obvious and useful connection wasn’t considered. Given long-standing interest in high-speed and/or high-frequency rail service in Canada, La Presse columnist François Cardinal has noted that a REM connection between airport and a likely future rail hub would extend access to international air travel far further than just downtown Montreal.


The REM was also supposed to integrate seamlessly into the Montreal’s built environment, its promoters insisting construction could be completed with minimal inconvenience to current transit users. By the end of this year, REM-related construction will force a two-year closure of Montreal’s most-used commuter rail line, and sever the most recently-built rail line off from the transit hubs in the centre of the city. Tens of thousands of commuters throughout the Montreal region will be forced to make do with already over-saturated bus and métro service.

Though public consultations revealed these and other flaws, concerns raised by the public, by professionals and even some politicians were largely ignored. The REM also failed its environmental assessment. The provincial agency responsible for such evaluations, the BAPE, stated baldly that the project wasn't ready for primetime and lambasted the CDPQ’s lack of transparency. In turn, the BAPE was accused of exceeding its mandate. The REM made a similarly poor impression, with transit users groups, architects and urban planners criticizing the project in whole and in part.

The main points of contention are that the REM won’t do much in the short term to alleviate congestion across the city’s existing – and comparatively expansive - mass-transit network. Quite the opposite: it is already beginning to exacerbate the problem.

Because the REM was conceived without the involvement of either the city’s main transit agency or the regional transit planning authority, its progress is hampered by a wide-variety of problems that would otherwise likely have been planned for. And because it’s a mass-transit solution to what is primarily a political consideration, the REM will provide higher-frequency service of dubious necessity to the city’s low-density suburban hinterland, much of which already has ample commuter-focused transit service. The high-density urban-core, which is most in need of transit expansion, will benefit perhaps least of all.

While it’s unlikely the REM will fail outright, it’s also unlikely to stimulate much new interest in using mass-transit services: it will first have to win back those who may abandon mass-transit while the REM is being built. Providing higher-frequency service to suburbia is the kind of thing that sounds good in theory, but doesn’t respond to commuters’ actual needs. Arguably the REM’s best feature – its real-estate development potential – has been somewhat obscured from public view because of obvious conflicts of interest. The REM’s limitations – and there are many – will for the most part only become known once the system is operational, at which point it will be too late.

The REM provides interesting theoretical avenues worthy of exploration – particularly the potential relationships between new transit development and how it may stimulate new growth in the housing sector. But building a new transit system – especially one this large and complex – ultimately requires the fullest possible degree of cooperation; with transit users, extant transit agencies and regional planning bodies.

Ignoring the recommendations of experts, the public and government assessment agencies for the sake of expediency is never a wise idea. When it comes to designing and implementing the mass-transit systems of the future, the needs, wants and opinions of users must be paramount. In Montreal, it appears as though they were an afterthought and an inconvenience.

Whether Montrealers will be able to vote with their wallets remains to be seen. Under the specific conditions set with which to integrate the REM into Montreal's overal mass transit scheme, other types of transit have either been replaced by the REM or will have their routes and schedules modified to better serve it. The REM removes operational redundancy between different systems in an effort to be more efficient, but this will likely have the effect of forcing many Montreal transit users to use a one-size-fits-all solution that doesn't suit anyone's needs

It’s difficult to imagine how forcing people to use a transit system they never asked for will encourage greater use.